With all due respect to religious historians, the process of demystifying today’s most popular holidays is a real downer. Sift back through centuries of good-hearted debauchery and you’ll find that most of Hallmark’s big sellers are actually the vestiges of pagan rites re-branded as Christian holy days — with occasionally bizarre results.
A brief historical introduction
An April-timed holiday celebrating the resurrection of a virgin-born god who, after his crucifixion, was consumed by his followers when his body turned into bread? That would be the Roman feast of Attis, which predates Easter, its Christianized doppelgänger holiday, by a few hundred years.
And performing animal sacrifices in the name of nature and fertility rarely make the list of the top five most popular ways to celebrate Halloween and Valentines day, yet both were hallmarks (no pun intended) of the holidays’ original festivities. Of course, anyone with an iota of cynicism can’t help but wonder how we celebrated holidays before the advent of mass-produced cards, candy and horrific novelty flags. We assume these celebrations had more authentic origins, perhaps something involving a pole festooned with colorful ribbons and a wholesome family meal.
But rarely do we dig deeper than the occasional lamentation of how the good ol’ days were better, that holidays — all of them, even the weird ones — felt more heartfelt, more real: a time when cards and costumes were made by hand, Christmas trees weren’t pink, and the local drugstore didn’t put out Christmas decorations until long after Labor Day. But beyond the occasional effort to remove a bit of commercialization from our Christmases or Thanksgivings — a shift at the soup kitchen here, a toy drive there — most of us resist digging too far back in time, perhaps because it feels like enough work just to make it through this century’s current iterations of the holidays we’ve come to love (and sometimes dread).
The truth is, we’re all a bit happier not knowing. Tell your kid this Oct. 31 that you’re leaving candy out for demons, not trick-or-treaters, and that the only costume permitted is a set of animal skins to be worn while escorting spirits out of town, and see how well the whole historical accuracy thing goes over.
A lengthy look at St. Patrick’s Day
But if we’re lining up the big ones — the ones Martha Stewart Living deems worthy of a dedicated cover — special acknowledgement should be paid to St. Patrick’s Day, the March 17 celebration ostensibly dedicated to celebrating Irish culture, but which has become synonymous with the binge-drinking of green beer, butchered Gaelic phrases, tacky shamrock décor, and the vague notion that the holiday celebrates the Irish. (The irony of “celebrating” a culture by reducing its cultural value to blackout whiskey drinking and head-to-toe green is apparently lost on most of the public.) The true heritage of one of the world’s booziest holidays is, like most of its Pagan-to-Christian holiday brethren, much darker than the cartoon leprechaun narrated story we’ve been fed.
First of all, there’s this: St. Patrick wasn’t Irish, he was Roman … Romano- British, to be precise. He was born somewhere before 410. Known for the missionary work he practiced later in life, the young Patrick seems to have had a relatively charmed childhood — that is, until he was captured at the age of 15 by raiders and brought as a slave to Ireland. Once he’d been sold to his new master, Patrick spent the next half-decade or so herding livestock and discovering God, the latter of whom reportedly sent Patrick a few messages through an angel, telling him to flee from his master and seek passage back to Britain on a ship. (Fun fact: According to the Saint Patrick Centre of Downpatrick, Ireland, where Patrick is said to have both begun his mission and been buried after his death on — spoiler alert! — March 17, Patrick was not immediately received by the trading ship on which he sought refuge. This was due to his “refusal to swear faith and loyalty to the crew through the Irish tradition of ‘sugere mamellas,’” which means the suckling of the crew’s nipples. He insisted instead on swearing allegiance to his new friend Jesus Christ.)
After eventually finding safe passage home on a ship, a 20-something Patrick honed his skills with the Latin Bible — possibly through spending time as a monk or by traveling to Rome, the details of his ecclesiastical education remain murky. He wound up returning to Ireland as a Christian bishop, where he spent the remainder of his days baptizing Druids into the Christian faith, pacifying tribal Celtic kings by bringing them gifts, and proselytizing to the masses as a dutiful instrument of God.
In truth, there’s not a lot of concrete evidence regarding Patrick’s life. The man was less than prolific, penning only two surviving letters, both a bit Odyssey-like in their storytelling. So it’s no surprise that many myths regarding his life, and the origins for his namesake holiday, have sprung up in the centuries since. One of the more pervasive fallacies regarding St. Patrick’s Day is that it celebrates St. Patrick’s success in driving all the snakes from Ireland. As Ireland is, today, snake-free, this myth has grown fact-like roots; though all scholars agree that there were never any actual snakes in Ireland to begin with. Some believe the snakes represent the Druid people, who Patrick metaphorically drove out by systematically converting as many as he could. There’s also some foggy info on shamrocks-as-teaching tools (three leaves equals the three parts to the Holy Trinity). But like most everything else surrounding the saint, the facts are seriously lacking.
Regarding the whole leprechaun thing: While the magical creatures do hold a place in Irish lore, the majority of today’s cartoonish Leprechaun iconography pulls more from offensive caricatures of the Irish people drawn during their mass emigration to the United States in the mid-1800s than on any authentic mythology.
So how did such a quaint Bible study story evolve into the Hieronymus Bosch painting of a holiday that is our modern St. Patrick’s Day celebration? Well, it doesn’t hurt that, after the Roman Catholic Church decided to make the holiday official back in the 17th century, they began the practice of allowing Irish Christians to break the punishing fasts required by Lent. Over time, this one-day reprieve from somber, sober meatless-ness has evolved into a dedicated debauchery. Today, the holiday is celebrated for its mostly secular traditions, though many Christians do attend church on the morning of March 17. St. Patrick’s Day has become a celebration shaped by parading, bar-crawling, and feasting (though corned beef is not Irish in the least). This brings us to Key West.
Finally: St. Patrick’s Day in Key West
If it’s true that Ireland’s patron saint is St. Patrick, then Key West’s is the modern version of St. Patrick’s Day. We are an island that proudly celebrates each day as though it were March 17, to the delight of hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Much like Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day in Key West is a bit anticlimactic. Those of us who wear costumes more than four times a month can hardly be expected to get excited about doing so for a few lousy hours at the end of October.
Nevertheless, our little island is home to a few Irish bars (or those willing to masquerade as such for the day) determined to celebrate St. Patrick for his more modern qualities: drinking, dining, dancing, and roaming the streets in search of snakes to drive out. It’s basically an all-day party, and everyone’s invited. Expect drink specials, green twinkle lights, fiddle music blaring out from every storefront, and a crowd of tipsy tourists singing “Danny Boy.” You can make your way from one end of Duval to the other, enjoying the revelry, but a few watering holes have gone the extra mile to make sure there’s at least a semblance of authentic Irishness in your holiday.
First up, a visit to the local Irish temple of whiskey, Shanna Key, 1900 Flagler Ave. is in order. The bar has lined up a series of live musical performances of traditional and modern Irish music through Friday, March 17. This includes sets by Skraeling, Pot O’ Gold, Dora and the Sea Sharps, and the Key West Community Orchestra. Attendees will be able to pair their Illen pipes (an Irish version of Bagpipes) with a menu of corned beef and cabbage, shepherd’s pie, Guinness Irish stew, fish and chips, corned beef and Swiss on rye, fries and gravy and potato leek soup. (In perfect form, when asked what else they’ve got in store for the holiday, a representative for the bar responded: “Couldn’t tell ya, most Paddy’s days end up in a blur when you’re Irish.”)
On the other side of town, the local sailors’ waterfront hangout Schooner Warf Bar have lined up a live music set of their own, headlined by The Doerfels, with additional performances by Skraeling and Irish-themed food and drink specials as well. With their abundance of open-air seating and an unpretentious atmosphere, Schooner Warf may be your best bet for getting off Duval without leaving the St. Patrick’s Day party altogether. Costumes are encouraged.
The Waterfront Brewery at 201 William St. will be hosting its St. Patrick’s Day Party on the roof from 11 a.m. to midnight. Drop by to check out the brewery and the fantastic rooftop views of the waterfront.
But by far, the holiday’s main event in Key West is the annual St. Patrick’s Day Bar Stroll, which will celebrate its 39th year on Saturday, March 18. The event began as an actual bar run, during which participants would sprint from one participating bar to another. Runners who’d been banned from any of the bars were given special access for the run, hence the event’s original name: The St. Patrick’s Day Bar None Suds Run. According to founder Rick Dostal, the habit participants developed of “purging” their beers in the street in between race legs lead to the event’s speed being downgraded to its current “stroll” category. It has since become a legendary local’s event, with commemorative T-shirts from previous years’ runs now considered much sought after collectors’ items. This year’s 10 participating bars include The Bull, which has participated since the event’s inaugural race, and Schooner Warf Bar, which serves as the final stop and official after-party for stroll participants. With proceeds to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Florida Keys and The Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys, the stroll —which kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 18, at the Southernmost Beach Café, 1405 Duval St. — is the kind of quintessentially kooky Key West event that has somehow remained un-commercialized and is guaranteed to draw a crowd. T-shirts and beer tickets are $30, and can be purchased at any of the ten participating bars, the full list of which can be found at www.stpatricksdaybarstroll.com.
And if the thought of simply strolling off the beer isn’t enough, Irish Kevin’s bar at 211 Duval St. will host a Shamrock Shuffle 5k run/walk, starting at 9 a.m. Sunday, March 19. Entrance to the race is $25 and includes a costume contest, finisher medals, age group awards, and the opportunity to run off the previous afternoon’s corned beef and Guinnesses. Packet pickup for the race is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. Friday, March 17, at Lagerheads Beach Bar, 0 Duval St., or at Irish Kevin’s from 8-8:45 a.m. the morning of the race. ¦